THAT RACE TO THE RAILWAY STATION UNDER A RAIN OF FIRE (17 March 1944)
Among the four battles for Cassino, the third is the one with the greater amount of well distinct and single tactical events. Each of them represent a story full of fighting, heroism and sacrifice such as the attack to the Cassino Railway Station carried out by the New Zealand Corps.In the morning of 15 March 1944, the Allies started Operation Dickens with a huge air and artillery carpet bombing on the town. At the end of the action just a few buildings stood up, although severely damaged; among them the Municipal Buildings, the Postal Office and the Nunnery (Map 1 and Map 2).
March 15th and 16th. Deployment and preliminary actions.
In the evening of March 15th, under heavy rain, 26 Battalion deployed into town as follows (Map 3).
A Coy HQ along with its No. 9 platoon took position inside the big Municipal buildings, while the remaining two platoons arranged for cover outside and around it.
C Coy HQ was set up inside the eastern side of the same buildings. Outside, No. 12, 13 and 14 platoons organized themselves in the exposed area between the Municipal buildings and the Nunnery.
The Post Office was selected as suitable for cover by D Coy HQ. The other platoons of the company took cover in the rubble beyond the road in front of the Post Office.
B Coy set up its HQ in the Theatre, a ruined building east of the Post Office with only one wall still intact, the rifle platoons being at short distance around.
In the morning of March 16th rain stopped but temperature was very low and during the day New Zealanders had a lot of trouble with radio and
Just before down German paratroopers tried to recapture the Municipal buildings, but the attack was repelled by heavy defensive fire. Later on, No. 16 and 18 platoons from D Coy pushed on through the open ground south of Route 6, but they run out of hand grenades and were pinned down by sniper and MG fire for the rest of the day.
Only when in daylight, the opposing parties fully realized the huge amount of damage Cassino had suffered.
Piles of rubble made every movement a nightmare and in such a chaos only the defenders could take advantage of it. Committed towards the centre of the town, 25 Battalion asked for reinforcement in order to empower its assault against Continental Hotel; accordingly, No. 11 Platoon from that company was tasked for. The action started in full daylight and it was soon recalled due to heavy casualties inflicted by German sniper positioned on the lower slops of Monte Cassino. No. 11 Platoon too was pinned down all day long no more than 150 metres away fron the Post Office ().
Around midday the New Zealanders attacked the Nunnery, inside of which some 14 paratroopers had been seen entering in the early hours. The first Sherman of 19 Tank Regiment capable of reaching the area took part in the action. The tank, led by Lieutenant Morrin, fired several 75 mm shells to the building, then two squads from No. 14 Platoon, C Coy, dashed out under fire cover provided by No. 13 Platoon. The building was easily cleared, the New Zealanders having two men wounded.
At 14.00, three Sherman reached the Nunnery and their supporting fire was helpful to the infantry. At dusk also No. 14 Platoon from C Coy moved into the building while Maj. Harvey, CO of B Coy, moved his headquarters from the ruined Theatre into the Post Office.
NZ General Bernard Frayberg, the corps commander, decided to launch the pre-planned attack towards the Railway Station in the morning of the following day, Friday 17 March. The manoeuvre appeared to be very risky because the attacking troops, even though with tank support, would move through open terrain for most of the way to their objective, and fully exposed to enemy observation and fire from Monte Cassino.
March 17th: the attack.
Because of difficulties in radio communications, the final orders for the attack were delivered to the companies at 07.15. In accordance with the
plan, 26 Battalion would receive support from A Squadron, 19 Tank Regiment.
Before starting, the assault formation had to wait for the outcome of another attack against the Continental Hotel, led by 24 and 25 battalions. That action was unsuccessful and 26 Battalion jumped off at 11.40.
The following account is divided according to the order in which New Zealanders units joined battle.
A Squadron, 19 Tank Regiment – CO Maj. J. I. Thodey - No. 1, 2, 3, 4 Troops.
The tanks moved first, they had to make a rush along 750 meters from the Nunnery to the Railway Station (Map 4).
The way crossed another road in the vicinity of Point 41, so forming a huge X, clearly visible from the above.
Maj. Thodey, CO of A Squadron, tasked No. 4 Troop under Lieutenant Jim Furness () as the leading group to be followed by No. 2 and 3 Troops.
By reaching the crossroad at Point 41, Furness could locate a minefield; probably it was a hasty one, i.e. mines where laid on the road surface, not buried. The lieutenant ordered his gunner to fire some smoke shells around to create a smoke curtain. Under that cover he left the tank to clear the road; contrary to his orders, he was followed and helped by Corporal W. N. Forbes, one of his tank crew.
Short afterwards the tanks moved while firing at some German MG emplacements. Now the vehicles where marching on a fully exposed terrain, along that single road to the Station. On their right, among the rubble of the destroyed town, where the paratroopers from 10, 11 and 12 Company, III./3 Regiment detached to Captain Foltin. Those units where very much decreased in number, but they got support from at least one anti-tank gun that immediately fired at the armour. The two Sherman forming No. 2 Troop under Lt. Beswick and moving behind Lt. Furness troop where hit in a few second and brewed up halfway from Point 41 to the Station. Allied artillery observers located the area of the German AT gun and a barrage was poured in.
In the meantime, at 11.45, the two Shermans of No. 4 Troop reached the Railway Station. Led by Lt. Furness and Sergeant ‘Snow’ Coleman, the tanks continued to fire suppressive rounds to the German positions around them.
The last three Sherman in the column where those of No. 3 Troop under Lt. Ron Riggs. The lieutenant, who was on the lead, reached the square in front of the Railway Station in a position close to the Cable Car Station (). Then his tank was hit by an AP shell that immobilised it, the German AT gun proved to be still effective. Lt. Riggs exchanged his tank with the following tank led by Sergeant Milne and in a few minutes reached Lt. Furness at the Railway Station ().
The last tank of No. 3 Troop was also hit on its way, close to one of the destroyed tanks of No. 2 Troop. Both the tank leader, Corporal Hubbard, and the gunner, trooper Gasson, where killed in the moment the turret was penetrated by an AP shell and the tank went off the road. In that point the road was at an higher level than the ground, so the tank fell down on its side. The survivors of the tank crew where rescued only at 23.00 that very day.
Only three tanks out of the initial seven from A Squadron where still undamaged in the area of the Railway Station; another tank, now under Sergeant Milne, was immobilized in front of the Cable Car Station, but it was still firing ().
C Coy, 26 Battalion - Maj. J. R. Williams - No. 13, 14, 15 platoons and Coy HQ
While A Squadron was fighting its way and the artillery was laying smoke all around, 26 Battalion started to move as well. Lieutenant Colonel
Richards and his tactical HQ moved into the Nunnery transported by tanks of A Squadron HQ with Maj. Thodey.
Minutes later, C Coy left the building from the southern door. The men of No. 14 Platoon where on the lead, they started a reckless run towards
the crossroad at Point 41; explosions of every kind and MG bursts were around them (Map 4). Behind them moved No. 13 Platoon, Coy HQ and No. 15
Platoon in the end. At the crossroad they stopped for a breath, taking cover into a huge bomb crater, then they went on in the wake of the tanks.
The leading infantrymen saw No. 3 Troop tanks being hit by German AT fire.
Beyond the crossroad the men where in the open, under intense enemy fire. No. 13 Platoon under Lt. Bay, now on the lead, dashed for the first house on the right, where the crew of a destroyed Sherman had took cover after capturing an MG squad.
The remaining of the company was delayed by intense enemy fire: of Coy HQ only Maj. Williams and his CSM, D. P. Corrigan, had survived and No. 15 Platoon had lost eight men. After regrouping the run restarted with No. 14 Platoon on the lead again. Two rifle squads of the latter left the road to proceed into the field on the right, the other squad, followed by No. 13 Platoon and the survivors of No. 15, continued along the road. In spite of murderous enemy mortar and MG fire, all the men reached the Cable Car Station which was immediately occupied with the fire support provided by Sargeant Milne’s immobilised tank. On his arrival on the spot, Maj. Williams got in contact with Lt. Furness and the whole company rushed into the Railway Station. In a few minutes the compound was seized by destroying some small German parties, the time was 14.40.
Just afterwards, No. 13 Platoon provided covering fire from the station to No. 14 Platoon during its dash towards the semi-circular engine shed, known as the Roundhouse (). Led by their platoon leader, Lt. Quartermain, the men occupied the shed by eliminating a small group of German paratroopers in a cleaning pit.
It was then the turn for No. 13 Platoon to reach the Round House but when they tried they where met by a hail of fire and only after the suppressive fire provided by the tanks Lt. Hay and his men could move in the open. In that progress, No. 13 Platoon went beyond the Round House and attacked a small hill some one hundred meters away, known as The Hummocks. It was a short fighting, the New Zealanders tossed some hand grenades, the hill was cleared and six German paratroopers were captured ().
In the meantime Maj. Williams too reached the Round House, there he fired a Very signal but nobody saw it.
A Coy, 26 Battalion - Maj. A. J. Fraser - No. 7, 8, 9 platoons and Coy HQ
Lieutenant Colonel Richards was informed about the success of C Coy through the wireless net of the tanks. Immediately he ordered A Coy to start
its movement towards the objective. But the men of Maj. Fraser were positioned inside and around the Municipal Buildings and they had to run in
the open for about one hundred meters to reach their start line i.e. the Nunnery () and (Map 5).
That movement in the open, squad by squad, was a massacre. Smoke was not enough to provide cover, the enemy was on the alert and all German weapons poured a terrifying fire on the New
Zealanders. Many of them were hit, the wounded crawled seeking for cover but they were hit again and again. It was horrible, for such a short
distance the company suffered twenty dead, one of whom was Maj. Fraser.
The exhausted survivors reached the Nunnery to organize themselves under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel Richards, the A Coy moved again in three groups leading to the station; German fire was even more intense. The men in the first group, Sergeant M. B. Wallen, Caporal C. R. Killworth and Private B. G. ‘Shamus’ O’Brien, were all killed near the crossroad at Point 41. The other two groups, one of thirteen men from No. 9 Platoon and one of fifteen men from different platoons, reached the first house on the left after the crossroad. On leaving the house again, other men were mortally wounded, among them Lieutenant K.J. Lowry. The road was under very heavy enemy fire, from that point on it started to be elevated and the ground to its left was flooded (). The men left the road hitting the ground on the right. Led by Sergeant J. F. O’Relly and Lieutenant K. O. Daves the survivors of the two groups reached the area of the Railway Station. No. 9 Platoon with O’Relly was sent to reinforce No. 13 Platoon of C Coy at the Hummocks while the mixed group of Lieutenant Davies took position in and around the Cable Car Station.
B Coy, 26 battalion – Maj. D. P. Harvey - No. 10, 11, 12 platoons and B Coy HQ
While A and D Coy’s platoons made their bloody passage towards the Nunnery, Captain Alex W. Borrie and 2nd Lieutenant C.V. Maze of No. 12 Platoon,
B Coy, carried out several sorties from the Post Office in order to pick the wounded up and bring them to cover. Then the order arrived for B Coy
to move as well (Map 6). Just after 15.00 hrs, No. 11 Platoon started first, followed by No. 12, Coy HQ and No. 10 in turn.
Even though there were losses, Maj. Harvey gathered his men inside the Nunnery to start again to the station in the same order. No. 11 Platoon, already badly under strength, went over the crossroad at Point 41 and headed on the left road, the one with some buildings on its sides. A German Spandau pinned down two squads of the platoon, but the other was able to outflank the enemy position and to destroy it. But it was clear enough that the chosen route was strongly defended by the paratroopers, so No. 11 Platoon headed forward on the field between the two roads followed by the rest of the company. The men reached the Railway Station in a while, then at the Round House Maj. Harvey got in touch with Maj. Williams, CO of C Coy. The two decided that B Coy had to defend an area north of the station, where some buildings were, while C Coy held the Round House and the Hummocks.
So the depleted No. 11 Platoon together with Coy HQ and tank support cleared an house to the back of the Cable Car Station, No. 10 occupied a large building to the west and No. 12 was left in a house behind Coy HQ.
D Coy, 26 Battalion - Maj. D. C. Piper - No. 16, 17, 18 platoon ad Coy HQ
D Coy participation to the battle was limited because its platoons were pretty much dispersed. Since the day before No. 17 and 18 Platoons were pinned down in a position west of the Nunnery, while the rest of the company awaited around the Post Office (Map 6). Many men did not receive the order to move and gather into the Nunnery prior to the attack and those who tried to do it where submitted to the sadly usual MG, sniper and mortar fire. Quite soon all the officers became casualties, including the CO Maj. Piper. Only Sergeant T. Clarson and twenty other men were able to reach the Nunnery. After a breath, Lieutenant Colonel Richards immediately sent them to the Station as a rearguard for B Coy which had started its movement just minutes before. Clarson led his men up to the Cable Car Station, there they deployed along with A Coy group under Lieutenant Davies.
After the storm
In the meantime more tanks from 19 Tank Regiment had begun their movement and by dusk twelve Sherman where around the Railway Station,
particularly close to B Coy’s positions.
Yet, New Zealand infantry, roughly 100 in strength, were in precarious positions even though some stranglers arrived at some time. 26 Battalion’s casualties had been heavy. A Coy lost all its officers but one and 36 men of whom 16 dead. C Coy lost 30 men of whom 10 dead. D Coy, many men of which where still in the town, suffered 6 dead and 18 wounded. B Coy had 5 dead and 12 wounded. The following night was quiet, but at down on March 18th the Railway Station was put under a counter-attacked planned by General Heidrich, the commander of the German 1st Fallschirmjäger Division (Map 7).
The attack was led by 72 men from the 1st Divisional Motorcycle Fallschirmjäger Company. At 04.00 they crossed the icy water of Gari River, heading to the Round House. Mortars supporting fire was inaccurate and shells fell among the paratroopers causing losses.
Many of the attackers wore some bandage on their heads as turbans in order to let the New Zealander believe they were Indians. But the tick failed and the defenders, with the support of the Shermans, inflicted them more losses. Among the Germans there was Second Lieutenant Wilhelm Stoffregen, armed with a Pack Flame-Thrower: when his men were hit or withdraw he was forced to surrender without having been able to fire his weapon.
The battle lasted all the day long. At 14.50 the paratroopers reached the Round House, but they had suffered very heavy losses. During the night on 19 March only 19 of the attackers got back to their start line, 50 of them having been captured by the New Zealanders.
The isolated 26 battalion was not attacked any more and on 20 March it was replaced by 5 Buff from 36 Infantry Brigade (78th British Division)
Considerations about the battle
The attack to the Railway Station was an action well planned by the NZ HQ and well carried out by the troops, even though luck played in favour
of the attacker, particularly with A Squadron.
A single AT gun was capable of killing four Sherman tanks, also due to the low thickness of the armour exposed by the targets (lateral and rear). So, Lt. Furness and his men took a great risk in approaching the Railway Station without close infantry support.
With regard to the infantry, the New Zealanders could have exploited the previous night’s darkness to move into the Nunnery two companies at least, in order to minimise losses the following day. But trough the rubble, to realize your own manoeuvre possibility and capability is a serious problem.
The German defence was really under strength, the bulk of which was positioned around the Continental Hotel. Perhaps Heidrich didn’t expect an attack on that route and, by trusting in the large floated area and in the interdiction power given by his artillery upon open fields, left the area between the Nunnery and the Hummocks barely guarded. In fact, the paratroopers were dispersed in small parties and it was easy for the New Zealanders to neutralise them one by one. Thirteen paratroopers were taken prisoners by the attackers.
The success at the Station could not be exploited since 26 battalion was cut off from the rest of the brigade for two days. The German reserve, namely II./115 grenadier regiment, were able to interdict the supply route at the crossroad at point 41.
The battlefield today
After the war, Cassino was rebuild extensively. Today the area of the big X is full of buildings, but the two routes are still there, and the crossroad at point 41 has become Piazza Dante (Dante Square). The Municipal Buildings has changed its location instead, and the Cable Car Station doesn’t exist anymore (Map 8 and Map 9).
Meeting with the veteran, 60 years later
During the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the battles for Cassino, the author of this article met F. H. Carter, D Coy, 26 battalion. The veteran remembered pretty well that terrible March 17th.
Bibliography and pictures of war
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